It's often noted that 'something gets lost' (or perhaps more to the point, 'changed') in the translation of popular fiction into film art. In point of fact, there's no denying it. What is effective in literature rarely works just as well - or in some cases, even as good - if literally translated onto celluloid. But George Sidney's Pal Joey (1957) is a property twice removed from its original source material. Author John O'Hara, who penned a series of popular New Yorker short stories in the 1930s featuring the unrepentant reprobate, Joey Evans (later collected into a novel in 1940), willingly diluted his rather unsympathetic heel into a rakish hoofer for the 1940 Broadway incarnation starring Gene Kelly.
The stage show was immeasurably aided with impeccable songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart that evoked the tawdriness and moody disposition of its main character. But by the time Harry Cohn's Columbia Pictures got their hands on the property, Pal Joey was already something of a warhorse and a chestnut; chronically rejected for its risqué subject matter and content by the Production Code. More changes would have to be made.
As such, director George Sidney's Pal Joey is something of a curious hybrid and a reluctant compromise. As conceived by Frank Sinatra, Joey Evans is a little less the ambiguous cad and very much more a devil-may-care charmer. In retrospect, this is Sinatra as he was in Vegas as part of the Rat Pack, a brash, rough cut diamond of an entertainer who sings his way into our hearts even as his attitude toward the women in his life can often make us cringe for both Joey and the objects of his dispassionate manipulation.
We first meet our pal, Joey (Sinatra) being forcibly escorted onto a train by a detective (Tol Avery) and a policeman (Robert Anderson). Seems Joey's become a tad too fresh with the mayor's under aged daughter. Despite his faux incredulity at being run out of town on a rail - literally - Joey does not remain without female companionship for very long. His heart is stirred - perhaps for the very first time - after a chance meeting with Linda English (Kim Novak), an aspiring, though hopelessly naive chorus girl. The relationship that blossoms between Joey and Linda is tenderly poignant. Joey is kind to her - a trait he's arguably never exercised with any of the other 'mice' he's known in his alternate career as a self-professed womanizer.
But Joey is not about to abandon his old ways - that is, not yet! Because at his core Joey is still Joey - scheming, enterprising and self-serving. True to these old habits, he makes a B-line for Vera Simpson (a.k.a. Vanessa the Undressa') a retired stripper who married well long ago and is now the grand widow of the cultured set. At a public auction held on the Simpson estate to raise money for a worthy charity, Joey croons 'There's a Small Hotel' to rekindle memories for Vera of her spurious past, before outing her to her friends, presumably to help her raise the necessary dollars from the rich benefactors in attendance. Vera obliges with a classy rendition of 'Zip!' - her signature striptease - that brings down the house, then quietly admonishes Joey for his presumptuousness.
The next day, however, she is 'Bothered, Bewitched and Bemused' by the ballsy scamp who took liberties. She decides to seek him out - or that is - she and Joey find one another at precisely the moment both could 'use' someone new and exciting in their lives. Joey has plans - big plans. Tired of the one night trade ups, he wants to open his own nightclub 'Chez Joey'. Ah, but with whose money? Why, Vera's of course. In turn, Vera acknowledges that Joey has ignited a fire within her - not romantic - but lustful and desperate for the earthly companionship of a man who's rough and ready for her.
Joey wows Vera with 'The Lady Is A Tramp'. Afterward she writes him a check for the expenses. It's all so perfect - except for Linda who is in love with Joey for real and for keeps. At first, Joey rebukes the notion that anyone could love him for himself. Certainly, he recognizes that Vera is not in love with him. But Linda just might be and the more Joey thinks about it the more he comes to terms with the fact that he has begun to fall hopeless in love with her. The problem now becomes how to cleverly disentangle himself from Vera.
At auditions for the club, Linda sings the sweetly sad 'My Funny Valentine'. Recognizing that the emotional content of her song runs deeper than mere performance, and perhaps somewhat fearful that Linda's affections are being reciprocated by Joey behind her back, Vera orders Joey to fire Linda. When he refuses, Vera jealously pulls her backing from Chez Joey, effectively dismantling his best 'laid' plans. Joey's refusal is perhaps more a matter of manly pride. As he tells Vera, "Nobody owns Joey...but Joey!" Still, later on his decision gnaws at his conscience.
Admitting to herself that the sacrifice Joey has made is too great for her to accept, Linda sneaks off to the Simpson estate to confront Vera. She agrees to quit the club if Vera will reconsider financing the grand opening. The ladies shake on the deal. But Joey has had quite enough. He refuses Vera's money as well as her proposal of marriage. Realizing that the man she loves has had a genuine change of heart, Linda runs after Joey, declaring that she will go with him anywhere he is headed. Unable to break himself of his feelings for her, Joey and Linda stroll off together for uncertain horizons.
Pal Joey is elegant entertainment - perhaps a shade too elegant for the rather raw narrative it's attempting to tell. Dorothy Kingsley's screenplay is sandbagged by the production code that absolutely prohibits her from delving into the more flashy - if mildly tasteless - aspects of Joey's lifestyle. As it stands, our heroic anti-hero (the film can never quite make up its mind if Joey is a disreputable scamp or a lovable heel) is described as a second rate entertainer which of course, is pure poppycock given that Sinatra (an A-list vocalist if ever there was one) is in perfect form and at the height of his own career. Furthermore, the raw edge of the original story's Chicago locales has been softened by a change of venue to the lush and magical playgrounds of San Francisco, and also by Harold Lipstein's superlative cinematography that sparkles with a frothy allure.
And then there is George Sidney's direction, smooth and stylish but utterly void of that razor edged 'charm' that would have immensely benefited this production. Sidney, who cut his creative teeth at MGM is well schooled in the art of making great musicals. But his Metro glam bam and champagne cocktail approach to this rather raucous bar room tale conflicts with the hard boiled elements in John O'Hara's original stories.
Rita Hayworth was Columbia's biggest star throughout the 1940s, but by the late 50s that status was beginning to wane and for good reason. She's older and while still looking every bit the lady, is undeniably less of her former sexpot. Even so, her Vera is preferable in temperament and morality to our pal, Joey than Kim Novak's antiseptic leading lady. Novak's particular brand of cool innocence never quite comes off as anything but austere. She's too plain, too uninspiring and too placid for Joey - reformed or not. As such, Pal Joey remains the Sinatra show and it is saying much that the film clings together almost entirely from his performance. He alone resurrects at least some of the coarseness of John O'Hara's original character. And the film recognizes Sinatra's immeasurable contributions even further by tailoring the Rodgers and Hart score to fit his musical styling.
Nelson Riddle's orchestrations are perfectly matched to Sinatra's lush and glib vocals and the film inserts other smash singles to augment the score. 'I Didn't Know What Time it Was', 'There's A Small Hotel', and, 'The Lady is a Tramp' are all holdovers from other Rodgers and Hart shows, but Sinatra sells each as nobody can and as though they were always a part of the show's integrated score. In the final analysis, Pal Joey straddles a particularly awkward vintage in Hollywood's film making; a place and a time when the old glamour had already begun to give way to a new visceral edge. This isn't John O'Hara's Pal Joey or an MGM big and splashy musical - but it achieves - most successfully - in bridging that chasm between the old and the new styles with a hybrid charm all its own.
Pal Joey comes to Blu-ray via Twilight Time; an online boutique distribution apparatus from Screen Archives that has licensed the film from its parent company, Sony, for this release. The results are mostly gratifying. The 1080 p hi-def transfer accurately captures the pluses and minuses of its vintage film stock. The original elements are in solid shape, although occasionally film grain is more prominently displayed than expected.
Colors are mostly accurate. Flesh tones look much more natural on the Blu-ray. On Sony's DVD from some years ago they were a ruddy orange. However, there is a pinkish hue to this hi-def transfer that is most curious. For example, Sinatra and the orchestra's band top coats are strangely leaning toward fuschia rather than the vibrant red they ought to be. Close ups are the most impressive, with a lot of fine detail evident. But medium and long shots tend to look a tad soft and fuzzy around the edges with weaker than expected contrast levels. There's also a few very brief, but rather obvious, cases of edge enhancement. Again, these 'complaints' are minimal. Overall, and given the film stock, this is another very fine visual presentation of a deep catalogue title.
The audio is impressive with Twilight Time offering an impeccably mastered isolated music track that extols the lusciousness of Nelson Riddle's orchestrations. We also get a featurette on Kim Novak that was prepared by Sony for its Kim Novak collection. It’s short and not very compelling, but good of Twilight Time to include it as an extra just the same. We also get the film's original theatrical trailer and some stellar linear notes by historian Julie Kirgo. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)